MINOT, N.D. -- One time, years ago, fans at North Dakota State University football games took to taping pictures of me in the portable toilets outside the Fargodome.
They were “Port”-a-potties.
Get it? I laughed.
The sometimes juvenile opprobrium of sports fans is what my criticism of collegiate athletics has earned me over the years. They think critics like me are out to wreck their fun.
The truth is we aren’t.
It’s just that the cost of higher education in the United States has gone through the roof, and collegiate sports drives those costs higher.
Recently sports reporter Jeff Kolpack produced a story about the “business” of NDSU athletics, but in his story were some ugly numbers.
This year students and taxpayers will subsidize NDSU sports programs to the tune of more than $7.7 million dollars, a total that works out to nearly $600 per enrolled student.
This isn’t an unusual circumstance. Based on figures reported to the NCAA, most collegiate sports programs lose money and must be propped up by general university dollars (which are tax dollars are public institutions) and fees levied on students.
The situation at NDSU has actually been improving. In pure dollars their subsidy level is the lowest it’s been since 2012.
Still, budgets in the North Dakota University System have been tight.
The cost of attending even a public university is too high for many.
Student loan debt is a real problem, both in North Dakota and across the nation.
How can we justify spending millions of dollars every year — literally hundreds of dollars per enrolled student — on sports programs?
When I ask that question in my writing a response I often get is that sports success is good marketing for the institution hosting the team.
Setting aside whether or not students ought to be picking an institution of higher education based on sports championships, are sports championships really good marketing?
The experience of North Dakota State University would seem to say otherwise. This week reporter April Baumgarten wrote that fall enrollment at NDSU is down precipitously over previous years. My own research found that, since 2011 when NDSU won the first in its latest string of football championships, enrollment at the school is down nearly 9%.
It’s hard to imagine a sports team being much more successful than the Bison have been since 2011, but if all those championships are good marketing shouldn’t enrollment be trending the other way?
Some football boosters might be inclined to argue that enrollment would have fallen even further were it not for the championships, but NDSU’s enrollment trend has been nearly identical to that of the University of North Dakota where the hockey team has won just one national championship since 2011.
The ugly truth is sports programs hinder the academic mission of the universities which host them.
But the public loves football and hockey, and the teams generate a lot of revenue for local businesses and local media, so everyone ignores that truth.
Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.